So We’re Cruel, Are We?
I grew up with rodeos, with bronc horses and bucking bulls poking their noses over our garden fence. Many of those animals were our pets, part of our family. Most were alive only because of rodeos. Without us they were literally dog’s meat – unwanted, unloved, off-loaded to us at dogs’ meat prices by busy racing trainers, disgruntled show people and inexperienced pony clubbers, for whom their love of bucking served no purpose.
We knew them all by name. And each of their names reflected a certain characteristic or memory of them. Astronaut, a big strong draught horse who reached for the moon; Flash, like a bolt of lightning; Drik Drik, a reminder of his Victorian birthplace. Robert the Nasty Bull, the most gentle, kindly tonne of bull you would find anywhere, who coincidentally loved to buck.
These animals, like us, had many facets to their lives and enjoyed playing multiple roles. Take Cape Canaveral, for example. A large, strong white Welsh Mountain Pony. We rode him everywhere as kids. But sometimes he just loved to buck. So we let him. What a great all-rounder. Pick-up horse one minute, bucking horse the next. Kids’ pony the next.
Or Company. Now there was character! A strong chestnut gelding, delightfully gentle and loving towards us and later towards our young children. But a champion bucking horse. He knew it and he loved it. He was a true performer. My husband, a former Saddle Bronc riding champion, was his owner and partner for many years. He learned much from that horse. For a long time, as Company repeatedly threw him off into the dirt he learned humility and deep respect. As their relationship continued and deepened, Company taught him how to really ride.
After many wonderful years, Company was retired and lived out his days with a herd of horses on a farm in the Midlands. He eventually died of old age, well cared for to the end.
A bucking horse or bull works hard – if it feels so inclined – for eight seconds at a time, sixteen seconds a day, ten or twelve times a year in Tasmania. Some of the greatest bucking bulls in Australia and in the world are quiet, gentle animals like our Robert. They laze around paddocks for most of the time. In the lead-up to a rodeo they receive the best feed so they will feel and perform at their best. One of Australia’s greatest ever bucking bulls, Chainsaw, would turn on a spectacular performance for as long as his rider lasted –maybe 3 or 4 seconds – then, with the job done he would stop and quietly leave the arena. His eventual passing was mourned across the country by those who knew him.
Come performance time we cannot make an animal buck. Anyone who’s seen a rodeo will have seen the occasional fizzer. We all have off-days and sometimes simply can’t be bothered. And not all animals want to buck. My twenty-five year old riding horse was sold to us twenty years ago for $80 as a bucking horse. We tried him once but he wasn’t interested.
For me, one of the most appealing aspects of rodeo is the risk factor. In a world increasingly sanitized by our push for 100% safety, 0% risk, a world where the smallest adventure such as a children’s Christmas party is clouded by outrageous demands for safety and exorbitant insurance costs, a world where parents are too afraid to allow their children to walk to school and refugees are locked away for our protection, rodeo stands alongside those other great adrenalin-rushing sports like abseiling, those thrills and adventures that remind us we are still in the land of the living. This applies as much to the competitors, who risk injury – or worse – with each ride, as it does to the stock and to the spectators. It is a sport that is full of activity, adrenalin, risk, raw pulsating life!
I must confess, however, that there is a most unpleasant side to rodeo, as there is to all walks of life without exception. Accidents happen.
But is the unpleasantness worse than any other activity involving animals or is it simply that the public is invited and able to view our world far more intimately? How many of us get to see behind the scenes of the racing industry, for example? How many of us really even care what goes on in those months and months of hard training for a race? Racing is far bigger than rodeo, it’s endorsed and promoted by governments while its offshoot, gambling, rakes in millions. It’s money driven. It can’t afford the overall emotional attachment that rodeo people invest in their animals. But it can afford to hide reality with much more ease. It can divert attention to bookies, fashion parades, chicken and champagne luncheons.
I am not advocating that we ban horse racing. How stupid would that be? Not even the so-called animal rights extremists want to do that. It’s far too big and they know they wouldn’t stand a chance. But I am asking for fairness, equal willingness to understand and equal attention to equal detail.
Accidents do happen to all of us. Some are avoidable, some not. Some are part of the price we pay for needing to remind ourselves that we are still alive and still in control of our decisions and actions in this ever-restrictive world. If an unknown racehorse dies, we don’t even pass comment – if we even notice. Oh, of course, we know it must happen but we didn’t have a bet on it so we’ll have another drink and focus on the ladies in their dresses. If a great racehorse dies, we mourn its passing as a champion – not to mention a great money earner. But we never question whether either of them died doing something they loved. What if they hated racing and did it merely because it had to comply? How can the armchair critic tell the difference? How can the armchair critic presume to ask such questions of one animal-related activity but choose to conveniently ignore them in another?
If something goes wrong at a rodeo, it goes wrong close up. That’s the nature of rodeo and the rodeo arena. It’s close, intimate, warts and all. The cosy, sanitized view that some of our spectators hold of the world can be disturbed. If something goes wrong, our lives and the lives of those we live and work with, can be shattered. I have seen family members with broken arms, legs, backs. Yes, they choose to be there. But it’s also a part of the risk of living. I know a competitor whose beloved horse died of an aneurism while competing. The accident critically injured two other rodeo friends and colleagues who happened to be in the path of the horse as it fell. Cruel? Not in my book. Unfortunate, devastating, gut-wrenching for the small rodeoing community? Absolutely. The horse and two men were well-loved, highly respected rodeo athletes. All three were doing what they loved. The rodeo community mourned and suffered three-fold.
When the bull was injured at Carrick, I heard accusations that rodeo personnel did not shield the bull from the public view (or was it that they didn’t shield the public from an unpleasant fact of life? Do we not want to face life quite so directly?) They should have immediately erected a hessian cloth like they do at the races, supposedly so that the sensitive public could be protected from the animal’s pain and get on with something more pleasant. At the races they have this down to a fine art. The public hasn’t even picked up on the recent deaths that occurred in these last three weeks. At Ulverstone we did it better- we thought. But then, how crass to divert the public’s attention while the poor horse was dying! Well, do we want to see life in its fullness or don’t we? Do we just want the cosy, sanitized synthetic version? Do we want to protect animals or the public or both? Either way, we must be consistent in our outrage. Or do we just have it in for rodeos because we choose to not even attempt to understand them and because they, like so many aspects of rural life, are on the hit-list of supposedly knowledgeable do-gooders ?
We had a beautiful old ex-champion saddle bronc horse, called Chilli Beans. Chilli for short. No one else had wanted him so he was sold to a mainland contractor as a bucking horse. My father bought him and brought him to Tasmania in 1979. He served us well for many years, averaging 240 seconds of work per year. He never earned his keep and we could have run money-earning cattle in his place. But we loved him and when his rodeoing days were over we retired him to the farm. But dear, sweet old Chilli died of a snakebite. An accident.
Another of our horses, fiery Warlock, died at a rodeo. Too eager to get out of the chute, he reared too soon, fell back and broke his neck, dying instantly. He was our champion bucking horse at the time. He was part of our rodeo family and it hurt to lose him. An avoidable accident? Yes. He could have been dog’s meat many years before. Still, I suppose a community that loved and respected him for all those years, mourned his passing for some time after and still speaks of him today with affection and admiration is no match for a quick bullet and a feed for the dogs at White City.
Animals are not human but far too often we try to attach human qualities and feelings to them. Too often we try to judge their lives by how we think we might feel ourselves. Traditionally Australians have liked to think of themselves as closely linked to “the bush” (such a quaint little term). In reality, we have slipped further and further from it. The distance between urban and rural life is increasingly remote. Many of our children – and indeed adults – today have never set foot on a farm, have never seen large animals like horses and cattle except on Playschool. It is very easy, and understandable, to attach ones own feelings and sensibilities to something one does not understand. But is that sufficient grounds for criticism?
Tasmanian rodeo’s Animal Welfare representative, Brian Fish, recently bemoaned the fact that despite recent criticism and allegations of animal cruelty in rodeo, almost no one has approached him with the aim of genuinely finding out or honestly reporting how it really is, what really goes on. He has felt increasingly frustrated that media reports brush over his own statements but choose to relate as fact, one false, inaccurate claim after another. Now, based on those mistruths and inaccuracies, the public have cast their votes. Of course, the results hold no surprises. If I were as ill-informed about rodeos as the public has been, I too would vote for a ban.
Despite the Government stating it will not ban rodeo, it seems that the public outcry has put us in our place anyway and a victory has been gained. We will now be answerable to cruelty charges – as if we weren’t before! We can no longer be a law unto ourselves – as if we were before! RSPCA may now be in attendance at all rodeos – as if they didn’t have that option –and take it up on numerous occasions - before! All rodeos could now be filmed. Big deal! They have been filmed in full for the last twenty-five years. But was anyone interested? Rodeos must now follow a strict animal welfare code of practice – as if they didn’t already!
It’s amazing how words can be twisted, facts omitted and others ‘made up’ to make us seem like monsters. Sadly, truth and reality do not make interesting or titillating news. And it’s easier, I suppose, for opponents of the sport to confront from a distance, to claim that rodeo people are the ones who are ignorant and out of touch. Not to mention cruel, barbaric, IQ deficient and abusive towards their children. Cast them in a negative light, much like those people who were on the Tampa or hidden away in Detention Centres. While they remain faceless and while we cannot hear their stories, see their world or put ourselves in their shoes, we can judge harshly, unreservedly and subjectively.
Making a loud, albeit inaccurate, noise in the so-called public interest and criticizing from a distance may convince the ignorant but it brings us no closer to truth or reality.
If the rodeoing community has committed a crime, perhaps it is this. It has made the grossly inaccurate assumption that the rest of the community might be fair and objective in its assessments towards it. It has assumed that its non-rural counterparts might seek to understand before playing judge, jury and executioner. It has assumed that common sense would prevail – the same common sense that rural people themselves must use on a daily basis when living and working with large animals. It assumes that everyone knows the difference between vicious kicking and punching and gentle coaxing of a one-tonne bull with a head as hard as rock!
In the real world of farming and rural life we cannot afford to deal in emotive, tear-jerking language in the manner that we have witnessed of late. But how we convince a hostile world that we are still, humane, caring, feeling, compassionate human beings, we have yet to discover.
(BA Hons, Dip Ed, farmer, teacher, student, foster carer, 26 years member of Harveydale Rodeo Association, former rodeo competitor, former Island Rodeo Circuit President, 2005 recipient of Island Rodeo Circuit Perpetual Award for Exceptional Service to Tasmanian Rodeo, 2006 Finalist RIRDC Tasmanian Rural Womens Award).